DESTROY ALL HUMANS! THQ/Pandemic Studios
You tool around town in your shiny ride, looking for trouble and sometimes finding it. The cops often hassle you, forcing a choice between desperate flight or furious combat that will litter streets with exploding vehicles. The latest Grand Theft Auto title? Not quite: You also spend a great deal of time reading pedestrians' thoughts, harvesting their brains and, when necessary, probing them.
You're Cryptosporidium 137 (or 138, 139 . . . and so on, depending on how often you get yourself killed by the silly humans), a small Furon alien who sounds like Jack Nicholson, and you have been dispatched to 1950s-era Earth to probe humans and steal their DNA. Throughout the game you're assigned various missions from your mothership, from capturing a Man in Black to using your flying saucer to destroy fast-food restaurants that are being used for a government mind-control experiment. All the while you try to accumulate enough human brain stems to upgrade your weapons and UFO.
The game's highlight is its sardonic take on '50s America and its loving send-up of the era's Ed Wood-style schlocky sci-fi flicks. Your telepathic surveillance of passersby reveals a comedic spread of inner lives -- quiet desperation, sexual deviancy and longing for as-yet-uninvented Internet pornography. As one man thinks to himself: "Shiny new automobile? Check. Wife cooking meatloaf, taking valium? Check. Monotonous job as a filing clerk? Check. Unbridled inner rage hidden just below the surface of normalcy? Check." The game similarly skewers various conventions of UFO folklore, from crop circles to cow mutilation.
This is a promising set of ideas, given a boost by controls that any newcomer to this planet can figure out. But the developers don't do enough with them, and the voyeuristic reading of people's minds grows old quickly. This is game is enjoyable, but not innovative. -- Robert Schlesinger
PlayStation2, Xbox, $50
HAUNTING GROUND, Capcom
This survival horror game starts you off with a unique disadvantage: You don't get any weapons -- nor, as a young girl who wakes up in a dark dungeon, do you even have physical strength on your side. Your only advantages over such foes as the behemoth gardener Debilitas, a murderous brute with the IQ of a 5-year-old, are your smarts and your small size. And as much as you might want to escape, the main castle gate is locked.
So when the troll-like Debilitas draws near (as telegraphed by his thundering footsteps and a change in the soundtrack), your first response must be to get out of the way and scramble under a table, behind a bathtub curtain, beneath a bed or in the dark shadow behind a door. Then you can only peek from your hiding place and hope the bad guy moves on.
Thankfully, you are not totally alone. Eventually, you rescue a friendly albino German Shepherd named Hewie who becomes your constant companion. Hewie can sense when an enemy is near before you can and will bark at traps to warn you. He'll also attack pursuers, buying you some time to escape. In between, he acts just like a real dog, whining if you don't praise him enough or plopping at your feet to relax if you stand still too long.
Hang on long enough, and you'll get a few makeshift weapons that can temporarily stun your enemies.
The scenery is drawn in distractingly beautiful detail, but you're better off focusing your attention on looking for the next dark corner to hide in, survive the immediate threat and, eventually, discover how you can escape this grim existence. -- John Breeden II
PlayStation 2, $40
PHOTOMESA 3, Windsor Interfaces
Digital photographers who have tucked away so many pictures on their computers that they can't find any of them should consider PhotoMesa 3.
This photo sidekick offers a speedy way to browse through thousands of images. This unusual way of navigating -- what its developer, University of Maryland computer science professor Ben Bederson, calls a "zoomable image browser" -- allows you to click the left mouse button to zoom in on any image, then click the right button to glide back out. As the cursor passes over a thumbnail image, a larger version of that picture appears. Movement this way is ultra-fast, since it eliminates some mouse clicks or keyboard taps required in other photo organizers. Those differences may seem minor, but they add up when you are trying to scan thousands of photos stored in different folders (which PhotoMesa can all display on the same screen).
Should zoomable browsing not suit your style, you can revert to a conventional image-browsing mode. Like other organizers, PhotoMesa 3 offers a variety of ways to annotate and search image collections; you can label and browse photos by people's names, by category, by time or keywords. But unlike many other photo organizers, PhotoMesa doesn't include any image-editing tools. And it does take a while to learn all of its viewing and annotating options. -- Leslie Walker
Win 2000 or newer, $25 at www.photomesa.com